Women perform better than men in high-pressure competition, a new study says. Women perform better than men in high-pressure competition, a new study says. Women perform better than men in high-pressure competition, a new study says. (Photo: GoodMood Photo)

Why men choke under pressure and women don't

A new study of thousands of tennis matches could shatter stereotypes about women in the workplace.

When the going gets tough, the women get going.

That's a key finding in a new study out of Israel that sheds light on how men and women respond to competitive pressure – and it all starts on the tennis court.

Heather Watson of Great Britain serves during a practice session ahead of the start of the Fed Cup at the Municipal Tennis Club on Feb. 1, 2016, in Eilat, Israel. (Heather Watson of Great Britain serves during a practice session ahead of the start of the Fed Cup at the Municipal Tennis Club on Feb. 1, 2016, in Eilat, Israel. (Photo: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images for LTA)

Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel analyzed data from thousands of men's and women's Grand Slam tournament matches. "Our research showed that men consistently choke under competitive pressure, but with regard to women the results are mixed," Dr. Mosi Rosenboim, of BGU's Department of Management, said in a statement. "However, even if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, it is still about 50 percent less than that of men."

Why? Part of it actually boils down to body chemistry, researchers say. For men, higher incentives for winning (like money, for example) might actually reduce performance because they increase the level of cortisol, a hormone produced in the body. Previous research has found that high cortisol levels can harm critical thinking in the brain and negatively affect performance. In the tennis study, this finding was more evident in men than in women.

Dr. Offer Moshe Shapir, one of the paper's co-authors and an Israeli professor at NYU Shanghai, said the findings indicate that "in response to achievement challenges, cortisol levels increase more rapidly among men than among women, and that high levels can harm the mind's critical abilities."

Indian businesswomanWomen generally have a harder time reaching high-profile positions in the workplace than men. (Photo: Stuart Jenner/Shutterstock)

While it would be easy to apply these findings to the workplace – where women still earn less for every dollar a man earns – the researchers urge caution. For one, people may behave differently on the tennis court than in the office, and in this study, only same-gender competitions were studied. But the authors do say that their work appears to shatter stereotypes that women can't hack it in high-pressure situations.

As co-author Dr. Alex Krumer of the Swiss Institute for Empirical Economic Research at the University of St. Gallen said: "... The fact that we have uncovered such robust evidence that women can respond better than men to competitive pressure calls for further investigation in other real-life tournament settings."

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